World's tallest wooden skyscraper planned for Vienna; city's fire service concerned

Image: Rüdiger Lainer + Partner.

Unlikely as it sounds, wooden skyscrapers are a thing these days. As we noted last year, concerns about the environmental impact of steel and concrete are driving some architects and designers back to wood as a more eco-friendly alternative. There's already a nine storey tower built from specially laminated timber in London, and a 12 storey wooden building under construction in Bergen, Norway. 

A planned tower for Vienna, however, is due to leapfrog both in terms of scale and height. The HoHo project in Vienna's Seestadt Aspern area will feature two wooden towers, the tallest of which will stretch to 25 storeys and 84m. The towers will be 76 per cent wood; Kerbler, the firm behind the designs, claim the material will produce 2,800 tonnes of CO2 when compared to a similar sized tower built from concrete.

However, according to the Guardianthe plans didn't go down so well with the Viennese fire department. Christian Wegner, spokesperson for the department, said:

A few of us were upset because it was crazy to present an idea like this that has not been discussed with everyone yet.

They have to carry out special tests on the correct combination of concrete and wood. We also want to develop a more fail-safe sprinkler system. I expect they will pass the tests but if they develop the building as they say they will, it will be a serious project.

The fire service is now working with the architects to ensure the building meets safety standards. If all goes to plan, construction will begin later this year, and should be completed in 2016.

Despite the fire service's hesitancy, the tower's height shows that planners and designers alike have a growing faith in the safety of timber structures. In the UK, it was against planning regulations to build a timber structure above three storeys until the early 2000s, when safety tests showed that taller timber structures could meet the same safety regulations as concrete or steel ones. Recent tests in Canada, meanwhile, have shown that timber treated in the right way can resist heat and flames for up to three hours.

Daniel Safarik, editor of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, says resistence to wood-based construction stems from a lack of understanding around the materials on offer: 

[The Vienna project] will encounter some of the same issues as other structures in obtaining approvals, mainly that the local fire codes are often predisposed against wood as a material, due to the combustibility of traditional stick framing.

Cross-laminated timber panels, however, are quite thick and develop a “char layer” that allows them to support the building for several hours during a fire – just as concrete or masonry would. Most of the buildings we have seen proposed are not “pure” wood structures anyway. Many use some combination of steel, wood and concrete. In general, the arguments in favour of wood construction are strong. 

In summary: building giant towers out of wood is actually much safer than it sounds. 

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.